On conscience-based medical exemptions

The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario is currently reviewing its Human Rights Code policy on conscience-based exemptions for medical professionals, and their effect on access to medical services.

This review was sparked by a number of news reports of doctors in Ontario and Alberta refusing to prescribe birth control because of their religious beliefs. In some of those cases, patients were refused in clinics where there was only one doctor on duty.

Concurrently, south of the border, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favour of a corporation’s right to deny medical insurance to its employees when doing so would violate the owners’ religious beliefs — a case that was specifically about access to contraception. The Hobby Lobby case has been followed by several new attempts to widen the exemption, and calls to extend it to other sectors and in ways that would allow businesses to refuse service to LGBT people.

These events reflect a major shift in the way that conscience rights are being seen and applied in North America.  It is my hope that the experiences of trans* people in Alberta with conscience-based medical exemptions might provide some insights for those considering a conscience policy review in Ontario.

Alberta has had a policy for some time which allows a doctor to refuse to prescribe treatments that violate their religious beliefs in non-emergency situations. However, they are required to state that the refusal is because of their religious beliefs, and to provide a timely referral for patients to someone who will provide care, so that patients still receive service and experience a minimum of undue hardship (although to be fair, having to jump through referral hoops can be considered an undue hardship of itself, especially when one factors in the difficulties in scheduling time off from work and other real life concerns).  Ontario’s policy is similar, though not identical.

Alberta’s policy was created to protect medical professionals from having to participate in any situation that might lead to an abortion.  But in the past year, there has been an upsurge of discussion about the need for a religious or conscience-based exemption in every sector and every practice.  Access to birth control is one of the pivotal issues in play in that discussion, although it is not the only one.

As an advocate for transsexual and transgender people, I’ve needed to assist a great number of people over the years who’ve been denied medical services because they’re trans* under Alberta’s conscience exemption policy.  Sometimes people have even been denied services for things like urinary tract infections, routine checkups and cases of the flu.  To be fair, the conscience exemption is not the only factor: denials are sometimes made by doctors who say they’ve never been trained in trans* health — although this complaint is made not only in regard to trans-specific health concerns, nor does there appear to be a willingness to learn from many of those doing the refusing.

Most often, trans* people who are refused care are also not provided a referral to anyone else.  This exploits the public’s unfamiliarity with this part of the law, and that they’re entitled to a referral.  It is certainly not every medical professional who refuses to assist, but it occurs frequently enough that the trans* community has had to try to keep a list of “trans-friendly” doctors — a list that is constantly plagued by doctors no longer being able to accept new patients, or making changes in their practice or habits.  I’m always happy to add doctors to the list, with the only requirement be that they adhere to the WPATH Standards of Care (which is also the policy of Alberta Health Services).  Two years ago, someone obtained a copy of our records and stormed into the offices of several listed clinics in Calgary, raising a ruckus about doctors’ willingness to treat trans* patients, and this resulted in several requests to be removed from our list.

Although commentators sometimes note theoretical possibilities like a Jehovah’s Witness practitioner denying blood transfusions, I can say from experience that conscience policies already can and do result in people being denied access to the care they need… and are not always given “timely” alternatives.

I am sensitive to a person’s right to opt out of something because their conscience, and not just a religious-based conscience.  However, in practical experience, exemptions tend to be abused, and marginalized people pay the heaviest price.  If there is to be a conscience-based exception to medical care, a province also needs to have a much better way of coordinating timely and accessible care alternatives, and better enforce the responsibility to provide those alternatives.  In Alberta, this is difficult, since there is no centralized means of communicating with medical professionals and provide some forms of training after they’re already in the field, short of making laws — so strengthening things at a policy level proves difficult.

With the recent shift of thinking among the religious right toward making provinces “abortion-free” and denying access to previously uncontroversial things like birth control, this issue will worsen in coming years.  If there is to be a conscience-based exemption to medical care, provinces need to seek a solution to the policy quandaries this creates now.  For example, if a walk-in clinic’s only physician on duty  will not prescribe contraception, then it’s worth investigating what responsibility the clinic should have in providing a doctor who will, and in a manner that suits the patient’s needs, rather than the doctor’s.

Or what responsibility the province is taking upon itself by sanctioning health care exemptions.

(Crossposted to Rabble.ca)

Paths of Pain, and the Ownership of Language.

Marc Maron recently ran a follow-up interview with fellow comedian Todd Glass, who had come out as gay on Marc’s podcast, WTF.  Marc’s podcast has often been strikingly introspective, and a moment came up that epitomized this. Glass started talking about language, the way that words can be weaponized, and the way he’s experienced this since coming out as gay:

(at 20:12) GLASS: But for me, I want to keep evolving.  I don’t want to be the type of person who drops one word out of my act and then the other word and then goes ‘oh my god, when’s it gonna stop? I’m done evolving!’  Don’t f***ing brag about that…  ‘Cause… you know, the reason those words — I realize it with the word ‘gay’ — the reason people think it’s not bad is they don’t see the path of pain where it leads back to…

That sticks out in my mind as important, as it speaks almost directly to the controversy that happened when Marc interviewed RuPaul Charles in the previous podcast, as part of RuPaul’s ongoing string of controversies over language:

(at 1:16:41) RUPAUL: No no no, it’s not the transsexual community who’s saying that. These are fringe people who are looking for storylines to strengthen their identity as victims. That is what we’re dealing with.  It’s not the trans community, because most people who are trans have been through hell and high water and they know — they’ve looked behind the curtain at Oz and went, ‘Oh, this is all a f***ing joke.  But, some people haven’t, and they’ve used their victimhood to create a situation…  If your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say, what they do, you are in for a f***ing hard-ass road.  Because the ego would have you think…  that is a trap that the ego will have you… it gets you every time…  My 32-year career speaks for itself.  I dance to a different drummer.  I believe that everybody, you can be whatever the hell you wanna be. I ain’t stopping you.  But don’t you dare tell me what I can do or say. It’s just words.  Yeah, words [mocking] ‘you… your words hurt me…’ You know what? Bitch, you need to get stronger.  You really do, because you know what, if you’re upset by something I said, you have bigger problems than you think.  I’m telling you this….

The sad thing about that is, earlier in the interview, RuPaul had some interesting but challenging things to say about building social movements around identity and about deconstructing “the matrix” of social illusions that people have.  While I don’t really agree with him on all points, it does provoke some thought and provide some insight about where he’s coming from.  “Identity” is a vague enough concept that it deserves to be questioned and picked apart from time to time, and that’s what RuPaul does.

Of course, language is also the means that people use to become self-aware, communicate that self to the world, and build common cause… so your mileage on that will vary.

The Spirit of It

Now, I don’t like playing word police.  I’ve done it a few times, and I recognize the importance of words and the evolution of language.  The effect that has on both forming social movements and shoring up one’s sense of self-respect (if not pride) is admittedly significant.  But the bigger issue is often the spirit with which something is said or intended.  So my overall thoughts on language are mixed.

Sometimes we only have the language we’re given.  We’ve only relatively recently coined “cisgender” and “cissexual” (words to mean “not transgender” and “not transsexual,” sort of like “heterosexual” is to “homosexual”) because using “normal” drips with judgment and condemnation, and “genetic” is not scientifically accurate or verifiable.

We still fight over terms like transgender, transsexual, trans* (with or without the asterisk), etc.  Depending on where you are, sometimes you need to be keeping a bloody scorecard.  In one group, people prefer “transgender” because it doesn’t imply that being trans is about sex; another group will prefer “transsexual” because it’s always been the term they knew, or because it is about changing the physical sex, for them; yet another group will totally reject “transsexual” because it was coined by the medical community and they want to reject the mental health stigma or the clinical abuses that people have faced in the years prior.

The words changed over time, too… it wasn’t that long ago that people embraced “tranny,” and sometimes even accepted the word “transvestite,” however inappropriate that might have been — either because they didn’t realize the implications of the word, or because it was the only label available in a drop-down menu, in one of those rare spaces we were welcome, at the time.  Although there’s a relatively consistent aversion to “tranny” and “shemale” now (aside from a few people who still use them to describe themselves), it hasn’t always been that way, and the labels each come with a plethora of nuances, and occasional people who embrace the terms for themselves.

I tend to prefer trans (or trans*), because it’s open-ended.  It’s supposed to be an adjective, not a straitjacket.  Personally, I’d hate to ever find myself parsing a descriptor so narrowly and precisely that it starts to define me, rather than the other way around.  But I really don’t blame people for getting a little peeved about there being a minefield of language.

And if you’re thinking that this kind of fight over language is just particular to trans* people, then keep in mind that decades later, LGBT people still have divisions over whether they want to retake or banish the word “queer.”  Divides exist in other communities, as well, such as the split over the terms “First Nations,” “Native,” “Indigenous,” “Aboriginal,” “Native American,” etc.:

“But lately, I question if we are empowered or disempowered by this term and this assigned title –and if it permeates and weakens our identity.

“Not the term in itself, but by all matters, machinery, and meaning (explicitly and implicitly) implied by the assignment of the title onto us by Canada, the acceptance of it on our part, and all that comes with such uncritical acceptance and internalization…”

…is a passage that almost looks as though it were plucked right out of an article on trans* -related language, doesn’t it?

Words are important to us.  They’re inevitably used to define us, so it’s natural for us to want to be the ones who determine what those words say.  Except that we can’t.  Abolishing a word isn’t going to erase the pain that went with it, nor will it change the attitudes of the people who wield the word as a weapon.

Because there can indeed be a path of pain associated with “tranny.”  When it was the language used whenever a person is attacked, disrespected, disowned, denied services, threatened, refused entry, humiliated, or more, it becomes a foci of microaggression: where any one incident can seem surmountable or even trivial, but when multiplied by thousands, it becomes monumental.  Perhaps RuPaul had the luck or privilege to escape a lot of that (he is, after all, able to take off the wig, makeup and sequins when it gets to be too much), or perhaps he found the rare strength to power through it all without it eroding his spirit — but trans* people at large aren’t always able to do the same.  Words have power.

What we can do in the discussion about language is assert our right to be respected, and to be dignified as the people we say we are. We are only ever entitled to speak for ourselves.  We never were empowered to label everyone who’s trans*.

RuPaul, of course, is speaking for himself, and that’s cool.  The whole word debate arises because he is speaking for himself, but trans* people — and just about everyone else, for that matter — assume that he’s labeling trans* people.  If there were a way to achieve clarity on this, it wouldn’t matter what terminology he embraces and throws around.

But where RuPaul Charles derails is not from pointing out the inevitable failure of communal self-identification (because we are not some homogenous collective Borg hive — I get that), but by invalidating those who are targeted by said language, and validating the ways the words are used to target them.  “Grow up, get a spine” is not helpful, and minimizes another’s pain.  While we’re busy trying to turn that “victimhood” into empowerment, RuPaul is there to act like there wouldn’t be any pain at all, if we only had more spine.  That’s not helpful, and it’s quite inelegant, at that.

The language debate became an argument over the willingness to respect.  Does one surrender the use of the word out of a willingness to listen to what someone has to say about who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean… or do they instead extend a big middle finger to them and declare that they know better, and that (whether anyone likes it or not) they’re appointing yourself the arbiter of another person’s reality?

Not One-Sided

But that respect goes both ways.

Something that always bothered me about this discussion was that often it became an angry shouting match about who trans* people are not.  Most often, this has to do with people distancing themselves from drag queens.  Now, I’ll admit, it’s difficult to change the impression that the public has, when society routinely conflates trans* with drag.  Virtually every newspaper story you see on trans* issues is illustrated with a photo of drag queens in a Pride parade (okay to be fair, some are finally starting to know the difference).

Drag isn’t the same thing as trans*, although some trans* people find that a safe space to explore and / or come out, so there can be some overlap.  Trans* is different — not better, but different.  Clarity would be nice.  But what happens is that instead of calling for clarity, people slip into the same bigoted stereotypes and assumptions about others that they don’t want applied to themselves.  Denigrating someone else in order to elevate oneself is very low.

The new argument is that “drag is trans* blackface.”  But drag was never meant to lampoon trans* people — it lampoons gender itself, both masculinity and femininity simultaneously.  It’s quite likely that it’s becoming an art that’s past its time, because of the effect it has on intersecting groups and issues (i.e. that regardless of the original intent, in current context, trans* people are lampooned by circumstance), and the buttons that it now pushes.  But I’m not going to start that discussion here, nor will I malign the integrity and motives of the people who engage in drag… some of whom set out to challenge gender as much as anyone who is genderqueer, but simply took a different avenue and during a different time.  It’s a conversation that’s looming, but not one that trans* people can have arbitrarily and unilaterally — at least not if you believe in decolonizing activism.

There’s another group of people that are often taken issue with, in the discussion about the word “tranny.”

While composing this article, I ended up getting into a heated exchange in probably the worst venue to have an intelligent conversation — Facebook.  One follower had been pushing me to write on the subject, and decided to elaborate on why they felt words like “tranny” are offensive: she associated the word with the porn industry and prostitution, and didn’t like the implication of being associated with such people… “sleazy,” “freakish” and “deluded” (because apparently, doing sex work means that one must not be really trans*) people.

People like me.

I don’t do sex work now, mind you. I did at two points in my life, though — once when I first left home at 18, and again later when I transitioned and was more or less dropped off the payroll by my employer.  I was outted on this point a couple years ago and haven’t written about it much here — but I’ve been having to discuss it a lot more recently because of legislative issues in Canada. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it, either.

I didn’t use words like “tranny” or “shemale” then, mind you, unless it was part of a date’s fantasy (at which point one inevitably has to put up with it).  And currently, things are fading far enough into the rear-view mirror that it would make as much sense to call me a tranny as it would to call me a soup can.  So I have no vested interest in defending the words themselves.

But the words used are no longer relevant, because the question of intent goes both ways, too.  Because what I was really being told was that my conversant’s pain was from having to be associated with what they felt was a lesser form of person.

Your path of pain does not give you entitlement to create more pain by bulldozing through me.

And from this point forward, I am no longer interested in this argument about language — or at least not until we have a good, solid discussion about intent.  Because while I recognize that there is genuinely a path of pain that some people have regarding the word “tranny,” sometimes it’s really about disdain.

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

Google Trends on “Transgender”

Posted for discussion and interest value.

Out of curiosity, I plunked the word “transgender” into Google Trends.  It’s not my terminology of choice, but it’s what most people use and what the general public is most likely to search for.  Here’s what I got:

transgoogletrends01

The numbers aren’t an exact value of something, but a comparative value versus the highest peak on record, which is apparently right now.  Or as Google Trends puts it:

Numbers represent search interest relative to the highest point on the chart. If at most 10% of searches for the given region and time frame were for “pizza,” we’d consider this 100. This doesn’t convey absolute search volume. Learn more

I don’t know if there were other stories that occurred during the same months of those peaks and contributing to the results — it’s possible, I’ve only noted what Google flagged as the top search item.

A few more charts:

transgoogletrends02

and

transgoogletrends03

Presented without commentary, in case anyone is curious.

Could Canada’s Anti-Sex Work Bill C-36 Also Stifle LGBT Speech?

Slightly over a week ago, Canada introduced legislation to replace the anti-prostitution laws that had been struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Conservative government has been trying to race Bill C-36 through both the House and the Senate simultaneously, at breakneck speed.  But the text of the bill has raised questions about its constitutionality.  Sex workers, mainstream media and even many Nordic model proponents and abolitionists agree that it places sex workers in even greater danger than the previous laws did.

But is there also a poison pill within the legislation that could be used to stifle LGBT and sex-positive speech?

Firstly, here is what the dubiously-named “Bill C-36, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act” does:

  • It re-criminalizes communicating for the purpose of commercial sex.  While there is said to be an exemption for the sex worker themselves, that exemption only applies if the communication is not in a public place and/or not “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present” (a minor doesn’t actually have to be present), and not in the presence of another sex worker under the age of 18 (one controversy has arisen because underage sex workers can be charged if they work together for safety).  The law had been struck down previously because it put sex workers in unsafe situations by limiting their ability to screen clients, and negotiate what they were willing and unwilling to do.
  • It re-criminalizes the “common bawdy-house,” defined as a place “for the practice of acts of indecency, a place that is kept or occupied or resorted to by one or more persons.” This criminalizes massage parlours and strip clubs, if commercial sex occurs on their premises, and also prevents sex workers from having their own (or collective) space away from home to meet with clients.  The bawdy-house law had been previously struck down because it prevented sex workers from working collectively indoors.
  • It re-criminalizes “living off the avails…” (as “receiving a material benefit that derives” from the sale of sex). It does provide an exemption (subject to interpretation) for some roommates, spouses and children who live with sex workers, provided that nothing can be construed as an exploitative situation and no drugs are provided to the sex worker.  This also criminalizes escort agencies, and it is unclear how liable referrers, drivers, bodyguards, associates and other business partners could be.  This had also been previously struck down because it prevented sex workers from working together or making business arrangements that improve their safety and circumstances.
  • It now officially criminalizes the purchase of sex.  This is new (previously, it had been legal but associated activities were illegal), and it’s because of this that people are claiming the law is based on the Nordic model of prostitution laws, which aim to end demand while supposedly not targeting sex workers themselves — but Canada’s law goes very clearly beyond that point in several ways.  While many are claiming that this law will inevitably be struck down as unconstitutional, the Harper government’s gambit strategy is to criminalize sex work, so that it is no longer legally relevant whether the laws make it unsafe.
  • Something else that is entirely new is that the law criminalizes advertising “sexual services.”  Newspapers and websites are legally liable if commercial sex advertisements are found within their publications, and consequences can include fines or imprisonment — again with an exemption for the sex workers themselves, provided it is not in a public place and/or “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present….” Weirdly, it appears that the Internet may be defined as a place where persons under the age of 18 can be reasonably expected to be present, for the purposes of this bill.

“Sexual services” is not defined, and I have asked elsewhere if this term could eventually be stretched in such a way that it ultimately bans porn.  The bill contains extensive search and seizure powers that at the very least provides all the legal teeth that such a ban would need.  Others have also asked if the vague nature of this term could be used to target sexual health services, sex-positive counseling, sex toys and more.

If the phrase “where persons under the age of 18 can reasonably be expected to be present” is reminiscent of Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” law, that may be by design — Canada’s criminalization of sex work owes more to Russia’s anti-prostitution laws than to the Nordic model.

(If anyone is interested in background of these specifics, I have posts at Rabble.ca about what the bill explicitly does, and how the bill makes a seriously flawed and damaging conflation between sex work and human trafficking.)

The Poison Pill

The new criminalization of “sexual service” advertising, however, is especially concerning.  Given the way that print and online publications are to be held liable for commercial sex advertising, there are serious implications for Canadians’ freedom of speech.  Beyond the obvious loss of advertising revenues that an LGBT publication might endure, there could also be wider-spread censorship if that legal liability also extends to Internet Service Providers (ISPs), for any such advertisements that could be found on their networks.

The question is not as absurd as it sounds.  It was only last July that Conservative MP Joy Smith loudly cheered Britain’s new law which required ISPs to institute a content filtering system requiring Britons to opt in if they want to be able to access anything deemed to be obscene or pornographic.  At the time, she had promised to flag this for the party to make a top priority, she said she was absolutely certain that the Prime Minister would be interested in taking action, and then nothing else has ever been said publicly about it.  Meanwhile, Joy Smith has been the Harper Conservatives’ most vocal proponent of Bill C-36, and given many comments by her Conservative Party colleagues, it would seem that she also had a hand in drafting the bill and / or lobbying for it among Members of Parliament.  And the only groups that have been very happy with Bill C-36 have been a number of religious groups, who seem to be the only consultants that were listened to.

Filters have caused minor controversies in Canada before, such as when Tim Hortons had to apologize for blocking DailyXtra from WiFi users.  However, they’ve not improved very much, over time, and have never been applied in a global fashion.

If ISPs are legally liable for (or could be threatened with legal liability for) advertisements of sexual services found on their networks under the terms of C-36, then out of necessity and self-preservation, ISPs would need to institute a content filtering system, nationwide.  Unlike Britain’s, there may not be an opt-in alternative.  This would be doubly reinforced if pornography were deemed a “sexual service” (i.e. by acting as an intermediary) at some point.

Where this becomes especially a concern for free speech is that content filters are incredibly arbitrary, and any filter system designed to effectively intercept commercial sex advertising would inevitably be overly broad.

The result of the filters implemented in Britain has been a deliberately quiet reduction in access to a great many things:

“The filters block a wide variety of content, from hardcore porn to extremist political sites… those “porn blockers” have already proven to be ineffective, blocking plenty of harmless sites and failing to tell the difference between sex education forums and porn. In one case, a domestic abuse helpline was blocked as inappropriate material, while many actual porn sites are still accessible through the filters.”

Back in January, The Guardian‘s Laurie Penny asserted that blocking more than porn was both the intent and the inevitable consequence of the government’s content filtering initiative.  Casualties of the filter system had included “helplines like Childline and the NSPCC, domestic violence and suicide prevention services.”  The New Statesman reported in December that one ISP advertised that its filters would block gay and lesbian content:

“BT have since reworded this description to remove the ‘gay and lesbian’ reference, but given that their filtering is provided by an unnamed “third party supplier” it seems highly unlikely that the filter itself has changed overnight – merely the description.”

What is and isn’t allowed still can’t be determined except through trial and error.  The Cameron government had to draw up a whitelist to force-allow sites that have been noticed to have inadvertently run afoul of the censor.  But the scope of the filters has grown since its initial introduction to also include discussions deemed politically radical — an addition stated to be because of the possibility of the propagation of terrorism.

While a C-36 inspired filter system would operate differently because of what it’s intended to block — advertisements of sexual services, rather than pornography — that doesn’t mean that the filters would be any less clumsy.  While search terms like “escort” would be natural flags for a filter system, ISPs that are worried about legal repercussions would necessarily include a wider array of tags, to try to prevent anyone from getting around the filters.   Given the subjective nature of the term “sexual services,” something that’s open to wide interpretation, this could result in the “just in case” mentality, where businesses and individuals apply the rule in an overly broad way, to avoid any possible complaints or legal liabilities. And then there’s the problem of filtering images, which don’t of themselves have keywords other than the descriptions assigned to them.

Given the avid support that MP Joy Smith has shown to both C-36 and content filtering — as well as the Bill’s obvious pandering to far right groups that have called for a Canadian equivalent to a Russian-style “homosexual propaganda” law — it’s a reasonable question to ask.

Canadians concerned about this possibility can contact their MP (who can be determined through a search on the parl.gc.ca main page), and civilly but clearly ask for assurance that the ban on sexual service advertising in C-36 could not be used in this manner.  They’re also encouraged to find out more about what the bill does, and voice their opposition or their concerns about how this affects sex workers.  They should CC their message to Minister of Justice Peter MacKay, and if their Member of Parliament is a Conservative, they might also want to copy an interested member of the opposition, such as Françoise Boivin (NDP), Sean Casey (Lib.) or Elizabeth May (Greens).  This must be done quickly, however.

Bill C-36 will be voted on at Second Reading on Monday June 16th, after Question Period at 3:00pm.  From there, it could proceed to Third (and final) Reading, or to a committee stage for amendments (although it appears the Conservatives prefer to pass it as soon as possible).

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

C-36: Conflating sex work with human trafficking

I recently asked whether the vague definition of “sexual services” and definition of the Internet as a public space could be used to make the anti-prostitution Bill C-36 ban pornography.  Regardless of how one feels about porn, such a thing would certainly require a debate, and it’s a question worth asking.

I also looked at the obvious aspects of C-36 that have sparked outrage from sex workers, and occasionally even from abolitionists.

There are further discussions as well — more concrete than speculation, but still under the surface of the legislation itself.

Conflating sex work with human trafficking

Anti-prostitution Bill C-36 explicitly puts sex work on the same footing as human trafficking and conflates the two in law.  Indeed, they have been consciously equated by Peter MacKay and by the bill’s proponents.

The rhetoric used when introducing the bill also does this, through employing a language that claims that people (particularly women) sell themselves or are sold as commodities, rather than simply selling a service.  Under this line of thinking, it is considered impossible that sex workers might retain any personal autonomy.

Human trafficking certainly exists, although not as frequently as it is often claimed (studies that claim high numbers of trafficking incidents often similarly conflate it with sex work). The fact that it happens less often does not mean that we should care less or believe that the occurrences of it are somehow less horrible — but it does justify recognizing when the scope of it has been unjustly stretched beyond what human trafficking actually is.

The UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (or Trafficking Protocol) defines human trafficking as:

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs….”

Human trafficking doesn’t always include border migration, and the exploitation isn’t always about the selling and buying of sex, but the consistent elements are that one person ends up controlling another, via unethically-obtained consent or no consent at all, for the purposes of exploitation.

These circumstances sometimes do occur with sex work, but they aren’t inherent to it.  Sex work does not always have elements of coercion, of control, or of vulnerability. Sex work actually includes a variety of trades, including street work, escorting, stripping, lap dancing, professional domination, massage, survival sex, porn, and more, making it difficult to generalize about it in an absolute fashion.

The Harper government (and supportive media) has had to paint sex workers, advocates and organizations as rare outliers, in order to maintain the illusion that sex work is always exploitative. A great many sex workers have a considerable degree of personal autonomy and independence.  However, those who are in exploitative circumstances are always those who are disproportionately visible, because they will justifiably make contact, seek help and make themselves visible. Unfortunately, this means that the dire circumstances experienced by those who do seek escape become interpreted as being representative of sex work as a whole.

Worse, using the term “human trafficking” interchangeably with sex work actually confuses the issue significantly, diverting funds and energy away from where it’s needed and toward combating legitimate sex work as well.  This makes it impossible to get clear and realistically comparative data, and reallocates funding away from effective anti-trafficking initiatives.  It undermines the fight against trafficking and tarnishes the organizations that try to do the needed work, making it much harder to address actual human trafficking.  And it has allowed far right moralists who are more interested in controlling peoples’ sexual habits seductively hijack the dialogue that once considered womens’ autonomy and choice to be important.

Under Bill C-36, for example, the emphasis is placed on exit services.  But victims of human trafficking have specific (and often urgent) needs that go far beyond exiting sex work.  These start with citizenship: far too often, the response to a trafficked person in Canada is to rescue them from an exploitative situation, and then deport them to the very same conditions that made them vulnerable to exploitation.  Certainly, without citizenship, access to other social services and the tools they need to begin lives free of exploitation becomes difficult or impossible.

And while sexual exploitation justifiably triggers anger and requires remedy, human trafficking also involves far more than sexual exploitation.  It is believed that there are nearly 21 million trafficked persons, worldwide, according to an estimate by the International Labour Organization.  Of these, 4.5 million are victims of sexual trafficking.  The issue of persons exploited for sexual labour is urgent, yes.  But it does not encompass the whole problem of human trafficking.  The approach of Bill C-36 allows the public to believe that we’ve addressed everything that matters.

The embarrassing fall of Somaly Mam — who resigned after questions were raised about her autobiography, tactics and alleged coaching of shocking stories about sex trafficking — should provide a strong cautionary tale about how we can sometimes react to the issue by willingly disregarding or failing to check key facts.

If sex workers did not have to feel targeted by authorities or ashamed to reveal who they were, they could in fact become key allies in detecting and identifying where and when sexual trafficking occurs.  Besides…

“Kung said the employees were required to share rooms in two five-bedroom homes owned by their boss, Tony Van Den Bosch.

“They had no privacy in the house. The owner would come in and out as he pleased and would enter people’s rooms,” Kung said.

“In addition, Kung said, the workers were asked to pay rent once at the beginning of the month, and an additional $200 “tip” on top of their monthly rent in the middle of the month, for the double-bunked rooms.

“… The employer also regularly asked the workers from Mexico for their passports and would hold them for periods of time, alleged Kung.

“Two of them were fired and sent back to Mexico after raising concerns about their working and living conditions. Two of them actually fled in the middle of the night one night because they were so afraid…”

How is sex work inherently always incontrovertibly equivalent to human trafficking, but the Harper government’s Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program not?

The paternal infantilization of women and the idealized rescue of exit services.

Bill C-36 assumes that everyone engaging in sex work is a victim. By doing so, this government ignores the experiences of people who choose to engage in sex work.  Unless there is direct force or coercion involved (which is procuring, something that was still illegal before this law was introduced), there are two intersecting factors that motivate people to engage in sex work: poverty and opportunity.  The balance between each will vary per person.

While promising to invest money in exit services, the same government fails to address one key driver — poverty — and completely disregards the other as non-existent.

Between driving wages down with anti-union policies, the Temporary Foreign Worker (TFW) program, cuts to the public sector, refusing to address economic and gender disparities…  the Harper government is a major driver of that poverty. If the choice is to earn as much in two weeks working at a McJob as one could earn in a few nights doing sex work, then that’s not really much of a choice, is it?

Certainly, there’s no talk about addressing job opportunities and wages that would provide a reasonable alternative.  Despite the stigmas, danger and even criminalization, sex work is one of the few ways that people might have to escape oppressive economic circumstances.

And by taking away any ability to work in visible spaces or safe spaces, the Harper Conservatives are driving the industry underground, creating vulnerabilities. The only thing that the government is offering is funding for exit programs.  Leave or else.  This bill does everything possible to ensure that exiting sex work is the only option.

The rescue industry

The Conservatives have pledged $20 million toward exit programs and enforcement.  It’s not known how much of that money will go to increased policing costs.

Exit programs are one area where a person really has to wonder how a law is going to be used.  Will law enforcement be used to push people into exit programs?  Will there be coercion or obligation to participate in them?  Will access to assistance or public services be conditional upon participating in an exit program?  If a person does not want to participate in an exit program, will the penalty be charges for things they would not have otherwise been punished for?  Will participation in exit programs be the only way a sex worker can avoid losing custody or visitation of their children?  Will religious institutions (similar to or allied with those who advised the bill, even) be administering these exit programs, and will proselytization be a part of the exit strategy?

Some of these questions sound appalling or absurd, but there are certainly precedents south of the border where these became the consequence of anti-prostitution laws which push exit programs.

A matter of advice

In crafting Bill C-36, there was a clear reliance by the Harper government on the advice of far right religious organizations like REAL Women of Canada and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and virtually no weight given to the people directly impacted by the legislation.

One of the organizations that stands to benefit from the $20 million that the Harper Conservatives have pledged to invest in exit programs is [free-them], which describes itself as an anti-trafficking organization.  But the organization appears to have a moralist slant that extends beyond that mandate.  When MP Joy Smith (who the organization describes as “Free-Them’s ally in fighting human trafficking”) issued a statement in support of Britain’s mandatory porn opt-in policy, [free-them] was quick to follow up with a similar statement:

“Children need to be protected from pornographic images that over time can desensitize our youth and create a false sense of sexual reality, and even lure children into a situation of exploitation that no child should ever experience. As Prime Minister Cameron clearly states, this regulation is not banning legal pornography, but rather increasing an extra level of security and protection from pornography getting into the hands and viewership of youth and children that should not be exposed to this. As adults, we have a responsibility to the young generations growing up to protect and defend children and youth…”

If it’s difficult to conflate human trafficking with all of sex work, then it’s even harder to equate it with the entirety of pornography.  Exploitation does happen in porn, yes, but in this case, there is also a highly visible contingent of participants who have been obviously not trafficked, and have relative personal autonomy.

The longer one follows the threads of Bill C-36, the clearer it becomes that it is far less about exploitation, and far more about legislating a specific moral vision.  And in the process, the issue of trafficking itself has become hijacked.

Footnote: While I had never set out to become an activist for sex workers’ rights, I’ve come to believe that the freer and more empowered a sex worker is, the less opportunity exists for exploitation, and the more opportunity there is to escape it if it happens. Criminalization achieves the opposite effect.

(crossposted to Rabble.ca.  Concerned about progressive media in Canada? Support rabble.ca)

Keeping safe at the corner of trans* and BDSM

Update: There is more information emerging that indicates that this specific case may not be what is claimed The following advice applies regardless, but keep this in mind so as to not make any judgments about any of the people involved until more clear information is available.


 

Somewhere at the intersection of trans* and BDSM, this happened:

“Three people have been arrested for allegedly keeping a transgender woman as a slave in the Ajax area of Natchitoches Parish.

“… NPSO received a report Saturday night from a Robeline assistant town marshal that he had come in contact with a female who had a logging chain wrapped around her near the intersection of Interstate 49 and Louisiana 6 West near Natchitoches…”

Media and law enforcement are making some judgments, and I’m tempted to come to a few conclusions of my own, but either way, it’s clear that something started out consensual and then went very wrong.  It’s not clear where that happened, how far the negotiation went, when the consent ended, or what broke down, and it’s not possible to know those things from the information we have.  Beyond that, it’s all speculative, and isn’t going to help anyone to comment on these people or this specific case.

However, I do have readers at a similar intersection, and there are some larger general comments that need to be made.  While trans* people who are attracted to BDSM can be at either end of the dominant – submissive (D/s) spectrum, many of these points will be about self-care and safety for the latter, who are more vulnerable in the equation.

This has raised some judgments about what would compel a person to consent to a situation like this, about depression, self-image, self-worth.  I hesitate to make judgments, because those things can be factors, but they’re not necessarily the entire story.  I believe that individuals can have inherent D/s needs too (and no, they don’t split along gender lines), so I caution about oversimplifying things.

No matter where you fall on a D/s spectrum, you have a right to (and a need for) personal autonomy and personal fulfillment. You have to first have personal power in order to be able to surrender it to someone else.  You are not a sacrificial lamb.  If you feel like the latter, you have some soul-searching to do.

If you feel worthless in your life, or helpless, then it’s always best to look in, discover who you are, the value you have and what you need in your life before looking outward.  It’s not right for you (or fair to anyone else) to put all of that on someone else.  You should have this sorted out before committing to a serious relationship of this intensity.

As much as you might want to trust someone else and put yourself in their hands, there does need to be a way out.

When dating in a BDSM world, if at all possible, do not move away from your support networks (hopefully, you have some to begin with, although I know this isn’t always the case).  Most major population centres have a BDSM scene, and it’s worth starting there to try to find someone without making yourself too vulnerable and isolated.  In the process, you can also learn safety practices and habits, and be cautioned about unethical persons and practices.  I know that local BDSM communities can have divisions and problems, and can be fractured or unwelcoming, so this doesn’t always work, but it’s worth trying, first.

When looking for a relationship with a measure of BDSM or power exchange and meeting new people, it’s a good idea to use the silent alarm or some modification of it.

Of course, a D/s relationship doesn’t automatically mean a 24/7 D/s (a 24 hours / day, 7 days / week dominance & submission paradigm) one, but unfortunately this is an assumption neophytes sometimes make, and a direction some consequently go. 24/7 D/s is a divisive argument in the BDSM community, because of the stakes involved.  It is a form of edgeplay.

I’m willing to believe that 24/7 D/s is possible, but it would absolutely require regular check-ins to ensure that the participants are finding mutual fulfillment, ways to *mutually* renegotiate if it’s not working, and an exit plan if it fails.  That exit plan should include the financial means for everyone involved to start over.

I’ve never been in a 24/7 situation and don’t make the rules, but I’d imagine they’d be something like this:

- If you and / or the person or people you’re negotiating with have not been in a lengthy (I’d prefer 2 years, but YMMV) D/s situation with anyone before, then you’re probably not ready for long-term 24/7 D/s.

- If you and the person or people you’re negotiating with have not been together for a reasonable amount of time, then you’re probably not ready for 24/7 D/s either, although it doesn’t mean that you can’t start small and work toward it carefully.  People change as you get to know them (or more accurately, they dispel some of the illusions you’ve developed / acquired about them).

- I know that 24/7 D/s people often strive for a paradigm that works without a safeword or stopping point, for a total power exchange.  I’d hope that if there’s no stop point, then there’s at least a way to communicate (because a submissive still needs to be heard and have their needs considered), and for renegotiation, if needed.

- Would a short-term 24/7 with scheduled renegotiation point work?  I don’t know.  But jumping in too quickly and too completely is usually a bad idea.

- I’m not convinced that 24/7 D/s can be accomplished with a stranger.  This is a long-range thing, not something to expect from the outset.

The idea of a 24/7 non-negotiable ownership situation is a fantasy, however much people might want it to be otherwise.  It’s not legal for one person to own another (nor should it be).  You can push it to the edge, if that’s what everyone involved wants to do, but a responsible arrangement does not go over it.

Reality will absolutely never be what you fantasize it to be.  I think most people understand that, but it bears repeating.  Real life will always throw in tedium, surprises, tragedy and drag-downs.  Likewise, the people who are participating in your life will have different fantasies and objectives — how different depends on how well the two of you have negotiated.  Those fantasies and objectives change over time for both of you, so there absolutely has to be a way to come back to the table and renegotiate periodically. The exit plan is for if you can no longer resolve your different visions.  It happens, and you can’t always predict it in the beginning of a relationship.

You cannot prepare for a sky dive by fantasizing that your chute will open.  It is your responsibility as much as anyone else’s to ensure that your gear is assembled properly and functioning.

This doesn’t mean that the victim is to blame for what happened [if things happened as being presented -- see update above] — the victim’s responsibility was only to avoid making themselves vulnerable to exploitation as much as they could (even if the situation was meant to achieve vulnerability), but the responsibility ended there.  The perpetrator’s responsibility was to not abuse and exploit that vulnerability, especially with the amount of personal authority being given.  The burden is by far on the perpetrator.  But either way, these are discussion points a person can use to plan for what they can, and to use caution.

The only other responsibility is to not put more expectations upon someone than is reasonable.  This is something that happens in BDSM, and then the dom(me) is blamed if they fail to live up to those expectations.  I don’t know if that happened here, but I have seen it when trans people (or anyone else, for that matter) enter BDSM relationships and expect them to be everything they dreamed.

Certainly, there are bad apples in BDSM (as anywhere), and the risk of predation is far greater when this level of power is exchanged.  You’ll hear that a lot: “you can’t blame us all for what a few bad apples did.”

But even the “good apples” are human.  No matter how much you feel you can trust and respect someone, there has to be a contingency for when they inevitably fail.

The biggest challenge for D/s dom(me)s is the expectation that they be somehow perfect, and infallible.  Sometimes this even means that they aren’t supposed to have emotions, health issues, weaknesses, character flaws… yet everyone has failings.

A dom(me) should never be so insecure as to not be able to communicate, negotiate, change, acknowledge their own failures, and allow for exit plans.  A dom(me) isn’t supposed to be perfect.  They are, however, supposed to be responsible and ethical.  That’s the line.  And it won’t always be obvious at the beginning if everyone knows where that line is.

Take care, be safe, realize your value and get what you need without losing yourself in the process.

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project and Facebook)

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